Historic Structures

History Part 3 Magnolia Plantation, Natchitoches Louisiana

Matthew Hertzog lived to see his dream realized in the reconstruction of the family home. After the death of Matthew's wife Atala in 1897, son Ambrose's wife Sarah "Miss Sally" Hunter Hertzog (1873-1960) became the focus much of the social and religious life of the plantation. Despite becoming an invalid after the birth of her fifth child, Miss Sally grew into the role of family matriarch and lived another five decades. The big house shows her influence in the modifications made during her life, including the bathroom additions, the breakfast room, which she had enclosed during the 1910s, and the chapel, which was built in the room at the rear of the ell when poor health kept her from attending mass in town.

Miss Sally looked after the family's spiritual well-being, developing a close relationship with the local Catholic clergy. Bishop Desmond came to the chapel on a monthly basis to deliver communion and to have lunch. Father Michael Becker and other priests from Cloutierville visited often as well. On one occasion Father Lyons stayed at Magnolia for six weeks while the rectory at Cloutierville was under construction. The young white missionaries from the Holy Ghost Brothers, and later Fathers Callahan and Huber and other diocesan priests from St. Augustine, were frequent luncheon guests at Magnolia. The men sought the companionship of the few white planter families around the largely African American Isle Brevelle communities where they served.

During the 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation took an interest in public health in the South. Natchitoches area physician W. W. Knipmeyer had received his medical degree at Washington University in St. Louis and interned in New Orleans. He later completed a residency in Long Island, New York and, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, earned one of the early Master of Public Health degrees from Johns Hopkins University. Knipmeyer returned to Natchitoches, where he practiced general medicine and on Thursdays traveled to clinics up and down Cane River, treating communicable diseases and giving inoculations. In the summers Knipmeyer would drop off his son Robert at Magnolia Plantation to spend the week playing baseball and exploring the plantation with Norman, Miss Sally's grandson.

Magnolia survived the economic hardships of the Great Depression and the agricultural decline that preceded it, through conservative farming practices and New Deal programs. During the 1920s and 1930s, Miss Sally reportedly had as many as sixty-five families on her place, "mostly Negroes." Natchitoches Parish was almost equally divided racially, but the hardships of the Depression brought about the first great wave of emigration, as landless rural blacks left for urban centers. The white population of Natchitoches Parish increased from 17,900 in 1920 to 21,010 in 1940. The non-white population decreased from 20,702 or 53.6 percent of the total in 1920, to 19,987, or 48.4 percent in 1940. In 1930, 81 percent of employed black males and 76 percent of employed black females in Natchitoches Parish worked in agriculture.

In the first years of its existence, members of the extended family and a network of friends and acquaintances came to the house for visits and in times of need. Many adults carry fond memories of weekends and summers spent at Magnolia Plantation as children, playing baseball, riding horses, playing in the playhouses, summer nights on the sleeping porches, and days spent watching the busy farm operations. A large staff of domestic servants, cooks, yardmen, store employees, and overseers and their families lived on Magnolia Plantation in the cook's house and overseer's house, or occasionally in the rooms in the ell. The big house was a constant reminder of the social hierarchy that existed on Cane River and much of the nation based on wealth, family, and race. Yet the house was also the place where those borders broke down. Long-time workers became like family, and employers and employees developed complex relationships based on mutual dependency, obligation, trust, and loyalty.

The period following the Great Depression saw some of the most profound changes in Cane River since colonization began over two hundred years earlier. Military service and migration of farm labor to the cities during World War II encouraged the mechanization of crop production at Magnolia Plantation and the adoption of herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Mechanical harvesting of cotton became more widespread in the 1940s. The 1950s and 1960s saw the end of an era of farm labor as the migration of blacks to the cities in search of work and a new life largely depopulated Cane River. The population of Natchitoches Parish declined by 15.4 percent between 1940 and 1965, a net loss of 6297 people. The white population declined from 21,010, or 51.2 percent of the total in 1940, to 20,082, or 56.3 percent in 1960. The nonwhite population declined by 22 percent, from 19,987 in 1940 to 15,571 in 1960. Those who remained increasingly moved into town, as the urban population of Natchitoches Parish more than doubled from 6812 in 1940 to 13.924 in I960.

Changes in agriculture and the social climate in the latter half of the twentieth century seemed to signal the end of an era. The period saw the death of Sarah Hunter Hertzog (1873-1960), marking the passage of the generation that saw the big house rebuilt. The Civil Rights and environmental movements created strong feelings in this conservative area, with its long tradition of land stewardship and unique experiences with creolization. Changes came to the land as well. Between 1957 and 1974, more than 27,000 acres of wooded wetlands in Natchitoches Parish were converted for agricultural use. Ground-nesting birds declined as fire ants and predators went largely uncontrolled. The post-War period also saw fundamental changes to the family plantation. The Hertzogs donated most of the historic outbuildings at Magnolia Plantation to a non-profit corporation, Museum Contents, Inc., in the 1970s to help preserve them. That area is now part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, established in 1996. Betty and her cousin Ambrose J. Hertzog, Jr., gave up farming in the 1990s, although they leased their land and Betty continued to raise horses.